Labour’s Vision & the Presentation of Policy

In relation to:
Labour Party Manifesto

For a Labour government to make a substantial improvement in society in which we live – reducing inequality, discrimination, deprivation and creating more equal opportunities for children – it will need to win not just one, but a series of elections.  Even to reduce Britain’s income differences to the level of the Scandinavian countries is a long-term task.  It requires cutting in half the ratio of the richest to the poorest 20 percent of household incomes.  

Without strong and enduring public support, effective action on inequality will not be possible. Essential to the way Sweden became a more progressive society was that its Social Democratic Party remained in power almost continuously for the 44 years 1932-1976.  Support was maintained during that period because it was widely understood (indeed taught even in primary schools into the 1980s) that the government aimed to make Sweden a ‘classless society’ and ‘the people’s home’. 

A long term commitment to socialist politics in previous generations was a reflection not simply of a desire for a few minor reforms, but of a belief that society could be radically and qualitatively better for almost everyone. If Labour is to gain sustained public support, it means having a new, credible and understandable programme, which people can see will produce a qualitatively better society.  That must include a clearly understood commitment to much greater equality, a commitment to economic democracy, to environmental sustainability and to using the benefits of automation to produce a leisure society and a higher quality of life.  

A future Labour government will face a number of crises – including at least a flight from the pound, a dramatic stock market fall, the ever worsening impact of climate change, and desperately under-funded public services.  Progressive and egalitarian policies will meet strong and sustained opposition not only from the rich, but also from large parts of the media and those who see the world through its eyes.  Opposition will not be confined simply to using the political, economic and ideological power and influence that the wealthy are used to wielding: we should not forget the more sinister plots against Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s. 

The spearhead of the ideological attack will be that progressive reforms are damaging to the economy. Labour must counter this by arguing that the economy is handicapped by entrenched privilege and elitism, by class divisions and snobbery, by lack of trust (one of the  consequences of high inequality), and by the waste of talent through low social mobility, poor education, and poor mental and physical health. It must proclaim that a strong economy depends on a fair and flourishing society and that low wages and insecurity are damaging to productivity and innovation. Greater equality also needs to be understood as a way of reducing the status competition which intensifies consumerism and threatens sustainability. 

Class identification has been a powerful element in the international electoral shift away from support for traditional centre parties and has contributed even to support for Trump and Farage.  Labour should making use of these class processes while at the same time being clear that the aim is to create a classless society by doing away with the forms of inequality, deprivation and discrimination in which class differences are rooted.

Central to that process should be a programme for redressing power differences at work, boosting productivity and furthering equality of income and wealth by advancing economic democracy – including legislating for employee representation on company boards (in time surpassing German levels), and incentives to grow the employee owned and cooperative sector.

An inspiring vision of a more democratic and qualitatively desirable future will provide a coherent framework for a public understanding of the detailed policy direction of a Labour government.  Central should be an view of an egalitarian and sustainable society which increases economic efficiency and produces a higher quality of life for all of us, a society in which automation no longer threatens massive unemployment but is encouraged – in conjunction with a universal basic income – as the way to reduce working hours so giving us all time for friends, family, community and leisure activities. 

The Labour Party’s electoral appeal could be presented as a programme – with greater equality at its heart – for the ‘social modernisation’ of the country to improve economic performance. It should contain the following components:

Creating a classless society

This is an inherently popular concept.  People find class differences awkward and embarrassing: everyone dislikes snobbery, elitism and discrimination. Even John Major said he wanted to create a classless society. But he failed to recognise that the key to achieving this aim is to reduce the material differences – inequalities of income and wealth – which create and maintain the social and cultural distances, the feelings of superiority and inferiority. 

Increasing Social Mobility

The most powerful way of increasing social mobility – of moving towards more equal opportunities for children – is again, to reduce income inequality. As we will show in our forthcoming book, bigger income inequalities strengthen all the ways class and status imprint themselves on us.  There are now three different data sets showing that societies with larger income differences have lower social mobility – including one from Alan Krueger, chair of Obama’s Economic Advisory Committee.  We also know that social mobility slowed in Britain after the Thatcher rise in inequality during the 1980s.

Strengthen community life

We pride ourselves as a nation on our ability to help each other out and pull together in a crisis. A substantial body of research shows that social cohesion, trust and strength of community life are all very substantially improved by narrower income differences. As people have long assumed, bigger income differences are divisive. Research shows that people in more equal countries are also more willing to help others – the elderly or disabled for instance. Strong community life is almost universally recognised as a social good and its loss as a deterioration in the quality of life. 

Increase psycho-social well-being

Social relations, connectedness, involvement in community life, are now very well established as among the most powerful determinants of both health and happiness in rich countries.  Anxieties about how we are seen and judged by others (‘social evaluation anxieties’) have been identified as primary source of stress.  People at all levels in more unequal societies suffer more status anxiety.  They also suffer worse mental health including more depression, psychotic symptoms and schizophrenia.  A reduction in inequality would improve the psychosocial well-being of the whole society.

Employee representation

About half the EU countries have at least some legislative requirement for employee representation on company boards.  The countries with stronger legislation seem to have had smaller rises in inequality, and companies with employee representatives have smaller pay differences within them. Employee representation is an effective way of reducing inequality.  

Research suggests that employees value involvement in decision making and that the combination of participative management and profit sharing leads to substantial improvements in productivity. Employee representation may therefore be an effective and democratic way not only of constraining the bonus culture, but also of improving productivity and the quality of working life.  Labour should make it clear that employers who oppose this are putting their personal interests above the interests of their companies. Economic democracy may also serve in the long-term to counter the undemocratic and anti-social power of big corporations.

Tax incentives and loans for employee buyouts and the expansion of the democratic sector of the economy 

The aim should be to support economic democracy beyond employee representation on company boards by expanding the sector made up of employee cooperatives and employee owned companies.  As well as producing very much smaller income differences, the data suggest that combining participative management and forms of ownership will produce increases in productivity.  

Economic democracy has the advantage that it redistributes wealth from external shareholders to employees and reduces unearned income. Employee buyouts also have the potential to turn a company from a piece of property into a community. While we have lost community in residential areas, we can improve social relations at work so that more people get a sense of self-worth and of making a valued contribution which is appreciated by their colleagues.

Using automation to increase leisure and reduce the burden of work.

At the moment automation is regarded as a threat to employment.  In conjunction with universal basic incomes (or similar), it must be encouraged as the key to reducing working hours and increasing leisure.

Getting money out of politics – ‘cleaning up politics’

 A potentially popular campaign tackling donations to political parties, lobbying and the problem of ‘regulatory capture’ which in many instances – food, drink, pharmaceuticals and many others – has compromised the ability of regulatory systems to protect the public interest. This should be linked with action against the corruption of corporate and individual tax avoidance.

Environmental sustainability  

The transition to sustainability is not an unwelcome belt-tightening exercise but a transition to a cleaner, quieter, safer world, in which the benefits of rising productivity lead to more leisure – to time for each other and to develop new interests, rather than feeding into the status competition and consumerism which are intensified by inequality. People often feel the economy works as if we exist to serve the economy rather than it existing to serve us.  The transition to sustainability should be seen as a transition to a society which strengthens community and produces a higher quality of life for all.

Richard Wilkinson is professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. The issues raised here are discussed in more detail in his Fabian pamphlet with Kate Pickett A Convenient Truth.

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Richard Wilkinson